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Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Essays and Blogs Concerning Mental and Emotional Health

The Proper Name for Eliot Spitzer's brand of hypocrisy is Reaction Formation

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Mar 13th 2008

eliot spitzerA friend forwarded a joke making the rounds concerning the Eliot Spitzer sex scandal:

How do you know Eliot Spitzer is a Democrat?

Because the prostitute he slept with was a woman!

The humor in this joke works because of the contrast between the Spitzer affair and multiple recent Republican and right-wing religious figure sex scandals which have involved men seeking sex with other men (or boys). Senator Larry Craig and Representative Mark Foley, and politically influential evangelical pastor Ted Haggard are probably the primary modern examples, but there are others.

The joke suggests that Spitzer is different than these other powerful men involved in sex scandals because he is heterosexual, while the other (Republican) men are (closeted) gay. However, as I thought about it, there is an important way in which all of these men are similar. All of these men seem to have made heavy use of a Defense Mechanism (a psychological and often unconscious coping style) known as Reaction Formation.

In Reaction Formation, people react strongly to their own unacknowledged desires by acting to suppress or even destroy similar desires in others (all the while denying that they themselves have those desires). So, Larry Craig and Mark Foley sponsored or endorsed anti-gay legislation and spoke out against gay rights (as did Haggard) but all three turn out to be gay themselves. Funny thing, that. If we think about this behavior as an instance of Reaction Formation this starts to make sense.  These men became outspokenly homophobic because they themselves were gay and couldn't face up to that fact. Bashing on gays becomes a coping mechanism that allows them to push away their own unacceptable impulses. "How can I be a gay man if here I am speaking out against the evils of homosexuality". Hypocritical as hell, but all too human.

Mr. Spitzer's reaction formation is similar with only a slight twist to distinguish it; Spitzer is not gay. He spends a boatload of money on (female) prostitutes, and then can't deal with that fact. What does he do? He makes time to prosecute prostitutes.

Glenn Greenwald over at salon.com makes the same point I want to make (and earlier in time) but he doesn't know the right name for the thing, calling it merely hypocrisy It certainly is that, but because we're a mental health website, we can call the thing by its right name too. It's not just hypocrisy; it's Reaction Formation!

The moral of this story is that it is generally a good idea to closely examine the motivations of any moral crusaders you might come across. They will tell you they are trying to make the world a better place, but all too frequently, what they are actually trying to do is to make their own anxiety go away. They are trying to reduce their own feelings of shame related to an unacceptable impulse they have by beating up on other people who share that impulse.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Presently, he is an Oakland Psychologist (Lic#PSY25695) in private practice offering evidence-based acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and addressing a range of life problems. Contact Dr. Dombeck by calling 510-900-5123, send Dr. Dombeck email or visit Dr. Dombeck's practice website for more information.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Yesterday's comment on narcissism and reaction formation - Sudeshna Sanyal - Aug 16th 2009

Yesterday I had posted a comment on the effect of a narcissist mother on the marital life of a bulleyed daughter. Their is acute need of your suggestions. Even if that is not published kindly post some remedies in my mail id. It would be of immense help

How to deal with reaction formation - - Aug 15th 2009

I wish to rectify a person with reaction formation. Her mother is a narcissist and have incessant demands and is never satisfied. The mother suffers from agony if she is spending time with her husband. She feels she is God to her child and her child should leave to lead her own life and should cater to her demands as she thinks that is the daughters primary duty. She maked the daughter feel guilty if the daughter enjoys her life. The daughter has been imparted the superego by the mother that it is her utmost priority to serve her. The daughter cant manage the immense demand and pressure of the mother and can see the contrast to other parents. She, I'm sure, hates her mother unconsciously, as a result has a very showy and ingenuine display and overreaction of care and concern to her mother (Reaction Formation), which the latter enjoys. But her husband is traumatised and her family is at stake. She doesnot change her reaction to her mother normally in due course of marriage as any normal person would do and continue to traumatise herself and others. How will she be dealt with? How will her sense of guilt (which is imparted by her narcissist mother) be eleminated to bring normalcy in their lives?

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